Achieving the halo effect in marketing

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A halo effect is the culmination of success in marketing, alliances, brand loyalty and quality products, explains Steve de Mamiel

Originally published on 14 January 2019.

When people align with a product’s message or vision to the exclusion of related brands, it creates a halo effect. This alignment is demonstrated when an impression made in one area influences decisions made in another area.

This alignment which creates the halo effect comes from a number of sources. Celebrity endorsements might be the most obvious. The basketball player who talks up their favourite sports drink, or the actress who advocates for a skincare regimen are examples of the easiest, and possibly most nimble, applications of the concept. However, the variable nature of this type of halo effect also means it can turn negative quickly, with antics and controversy regularly – and abruptly – ending sponsor relationships.

Today, celebrity endorsements take on the shape of Instagram influencers. When a person – and the personal brand they’ve created – has achieved extraordinary things, they can effectively transfer the trust they’ve gained to a product or brand.

Likewise, community groups and clubs, such as those for retired people or employment associations create a bonding relationship with their members, and the brands with whom they’ve aligned, will be first choice thanks to the shared identity within the group.

Halo effects come from a place of shared identity, admiration and respect. In a time where possibilities and choices are endless, consumers break through the noise to align with brands they feel represent them and their values.

It’s key to note that organisations that choose to leverage the halo effect do so at risk of understanding their clients fully. Social listening is the process of digitally monitoring conversations online to understand what people are saying about a brand or product. It’s critical to any marketing plan because the results, accuracy and timelines that social listening affords are invaluable.

And listening to a product’s place in the online community isn’t something to be done just at the beginning of the marketing plan. It must be continually monitored with social listening tools to gauge the efficacy of the plan, and to ensure that any shifts in the respect or admiration for the product are reacted to and plans tweaked accordingly.

Destruction of the halo effect and its impact on a business

Generally speaking, consumers are forgiving of a mistake if the vision – the ‘why’ – is still consistent. A famous example from 2016 is that of the failed Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Its widely publicised faulty batteries (that caught fire in some cases) could have irreparably damaged Samsung’s relationship with its long-standing, loyal fans. The company was at risk of losing market share when consumers weighed the massive inconvenience of the problem over their feelings about how competing products were overly expensive and restrictive. But because Samsung was quick to own its responsibility for the bad product and remedy it, the organisation experienced only a short-term negative impact on its sales reputation.

Samsung’s mistake directly impacted 2.5 million customers, whose mobile phones were recalled. Airlines banned the phones on planes, and consumers’ lives were put on hold when the device that connected them to most aspects of their lives was rendered useless. The recall in October 2016 cost Samsung approximately $8bn in sales and its share prices took a hit. But just 18 months later, the share price had climbed by 50%. The management distraction and loss of its halo were short-lived.

Had Samsung been slower to react (the first recall happened a month after the product launch) the impact might have been very different. Samsung understood that its consumer loyalty was derived from trust in the brand as a whole, and therefore, Samsung was transparent about the issues, the reasons for these and what it was doing to remedy the situation. That humility and transparency served to reinforce the trust that its community had, and gave the company the leeway needed to make product replacements.

One bad product will not destroy the halo effect. But forgetting about the company’s mission, and being abandoned by a community or by influencers, will destroy the halo effect. While consumers are generally forgiving of product mistakes, they are very unforgiving of a deviation from the community norms or values. 

In 2009, a year after US swimmer Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, the fresh-faced, most-decorated Olympian – and spokesman for Kellogg’s cereal – was revealed to have smoked marijuana in college. He immediately lost his contract (and untold income) as a result.

Though Michael Phelps ultimately survived the PR storm, Kellogg’s felt the need to sever the relationship because Phelps no longer portrayed the wholesome persona in which the brand knew its followers identified.

Ethical dilemmas of the halo effect

In the earlier example, Samsung recovered from its issues with a faulty product. However, larger issues emerged 12 months later when its vice-chairman, Jay Y Lee was jailed for five years for bribery. Samsung had clearly taken its influence too far and struggled to overcome the perceived failings of its management practices.

When a person looks at an organisation with a strong bias, problems and changes are not critically assessed in the same way they are by someone without a strong identification to the brand. This is the reason why judges must recuse themselves from cases where they have a personal affiliation – their bias affects their ability to make informed observations.

Companies can become complacent once a halo effect has been developed. Since Samsung’s product difficulties were short-lived and the company rebounded positively, it effectively believed that it could do no wrong. The fact that Samsung’s previous failure resulted in no material affect meant it was prepared to take short cuts or release sub-standard products with the realisation that it can overcome virtually anything.

Businesses seek alignment with celebrities and groups that they know represent their targeted market. Through tactics such as social listening, organisations learn which influencers their clientele follow, and build relationships and sponsorships with those influencers.

The ethical dilemma in this part of the process is that frequently those influencers are not users or even advocates of the product.

For example, the US actress Sharon Stone leveraged her celebrity as a paid advocate for the American beef industry. But when she revealed to a health magazine that she had long ago cut red meat from her diet to maintain her weight and complexion, she was immediately dropped from the sponsorship. If Stone’s beliefs or views contradicted the product, should she have even been chosen as a sponsor in the first place? If the brand was aware of it (which one has to assume they were) was the misdirection by the company ethical?

The psychology of the halo effect

If a brand stands for something, represents a value or demonstrates a belief, the general assumption is that it will be consistent across the board. While we expect people to live up to a demonstrated value or personal quality, we have the same expectation of brands.

In the same way, if a brand fails in some way, consumers feel an unresolved disappointment that can manifest as a feeling of betrayal. This disappointment is the reason that companies that leverage their halo effect must make an immediately transparent and very public change when it is damaged.

Most consumers see Porsche as a brand that is good at making fast cars. As an extension, most people would assume that the Porsche Cayenne is faster than most SUVs in the market despite having no direct knowledge of the vehicle. The assumption is applied because of our bias in believing that Porsche makes speedy vehicles.

Humans look for values, standards and patterns in most things we do. The ability to draw conclusions and filter out ambiguous or irrelevant information is a hard-wired, evolutionary characteristic. This is what is happening when we assume that all products from a company are the same, and why we ignore brands that don’t align with our values and standards.

The importance of quality products versus brand identity

Generally speaking, products can be replaced or copied, making the brand identity the most important factor in a company’s longevity. Simply put, while products become obsolete, the brand can survive by evolving with the changing times. An out-of-date product will rarely come back into prominence.

Quality is a subjective measure, and it’s important to remember that products are purchased based on what the consumer believes the brand represents in terms of quality. While a product might be purchased based on brand identity alone, the product experience needs to live up to the consumer’s biases. One bad product might not be enough to unravel those biases, but if a negative pattern emerges across multiple products within a brand, the halo effect can be lost.

However, brand identity doesn’t just happen. It takes a succession of products that live up to the company’s promises for the company to build the trust that they can leverage for a rosy future. When a company combines a stellar brand identity with continually successful, high-quality products, it is able to create a multi-generational legacy. Though products might fail famously, the brand’s legacy allows it the space to regroup and relaunch.

Marketing strategy and the halo effect

As the halo effect it is a result or symptom of other activities, it’s almost impossible to plan it into a company’s marketing strategy. While the components that help create a halo effect are strategic, the effect itself is not a marketing tool – it’s the outcome of a successful marketing campaign. The organisation is mindful of what created the halo effect, and monitors it to ensure they stay true to the values that have built the effect.

For example, if the business has earned a ‘halo’ in the eyes of consumers due to a durable product line-up, then that standard must remain consistent across the board to prevent the disappointment that leads to defection. A switch to a cheaper-built product, or one with a shorter life, would overcome the positive bias of the customer and lead to failure.

A halo effect occurs as the culmination of success in marketing, alliances, brand loyalty, and quality products. Small failures in any of those areas don’t necessarily result in the loss of the halo – in fact, as we’ve seen, the response to failure can enhance it – but multiple and repeated failures can spell even greater doom for a brand that has leveraged their halo as opposed to others who haven’t.

Companies must practise continuous monitoring of their brand identity among the public and make strategically nimble adjustments to ensure their success is maintained. Fortunately, tools that have emerged from social media platforms make it possible to listen and react to consumer emotions, and keep that halo perched where it belongs.

‘People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.’ Simon Sinek

Steve de Mamiel is author of The Mongrel Method: sales and marketing for the new breed of buyers.

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